Affective Contortions

Some fragments on gender, neurodivergence, and emotion, inspired by the TAAAP Chats theme for July. This relates back to some other conversations from the past couple of years, but I’m unable to fully unspool all those connections at the moment, so for now, take this as just a personal reflection piece.

[ Crossposted. Preview image by Ninniane, CC BY-NC 2.0. ]

While I haven’t committed to any particular diagnostic label, in terms of narratives and experiences, I feel a kind of cousin-y relationship to the autistic community, and nowhere is this more true than in regards to “tone.” Tone — nebulous, amorphous tone — lurks as this recurring basis of accusations, seemingly impossible to fully account for. That’s not to say I’m completely insensible to detecting it, just that it’s sometimes very hard for me to tell how people are interpreting things the way they do, and this seems to align with similar difficulties I hear about from autistic people. Overall it seems I get along best with people willing to tolerate some of the associated flat affect and more direct communication styles.

Among those who are less… at home with that, “tone” hangs over my head as this invisible trap, impossible to anticipate well enough to avoid, an eternally-available basis for reprimands. If it’s an objectionable claim or turn of phrase that’s the problem, that at least I can understand, but the worst is when there isn’t a particular mistake anyone can point to — only this very nebulous sense of wrongness that can never be quite pinned down into accessible instructions. At times it’s like everyone else can see an extra color I’m not capable of picking up on, and I can never guess when they’re going to snap at me for painting with what I thought was just another shade of green.

With the way my culture links emotion to gender, too, I have gendered associations with the obligations that others place on me. Those who’ve been perceived as women probably know what it’s like to be randomly told to “smile” — to just perform an emotion for anybody who asks at the drop of a hat. It’s things like this that I associate with the “softer” language that people sometimes seem to want from me: more hedging, more hesitation, more offerings and reassurances and beseeching shrinking self-effacing sweetness, an endless well of emotional labor for anyone who asks. I’m not categorically against all these things; certainly there’s times when hedging is appropriate. At other times, it just seems like arbitrary hoops to jump through, a more roundabout and draining way to get to the same destination.

It’s not really the shape of it, though, but the work of it, the contortions, that makes it feel cruel to have demanded of me — and the resonance with all the one-sided limitations that have imposed on me before. My upbringing already put me through as much of this as I could handle. If I give you some examples, maybe you will understand some of what I mean.

I remember once when I was little — seven or eight, maybe — having a wailing weeping breakdown, crying into the carpet, just repeating the words “I want to die” over and over. Can’t remember what I was even upset about, but what I do remember is my parents’ response: them telling me how it made them feel, how upsetting it was, that I would say things like that, and why didn’t I consider how much I was hurting their feelings? In that moment I was obligated to stuff it because I was making the adults uncomfortable.

Another time, when I was older, eleven or twelve maybe, we were walking out of the theater after seeing… I think it was Chicken Little? …and my mother asked me what I’d thought of the movie. So I started articulating my thoughts, trying to put words to some of the things I didn’t like about the story. Before I could even finish, my mother snapped at me and told me if I was going to be like that, she wasn’t going to take me to the movies anymore.

It was no different when I was a teenager and the family went out west. I was severely depressed at the time and had become unusually lethargic, even for me. My father, who remained oblivious to this, kept looking out the window and talking about the mountains, how beautiful the mountains were, asking why wasn’t I spending more time looking at the mountains, berating me for not admiring the mountains. I felt like there was a film in between me and the world, separating me from feeling anything but a tired hopeless aching dull-eyed malaise, and here I was being reprimanded for not adequately appreciating the scenery.

One of the things that stuck with me the most about living with them was the obligation to smile for the camera. This is not a metaphor. My parents both liked to take pictures, including pictures of me, both group pictures and individual pictures where I’d have to hold still and fake a smile indefinitely until they were satisfied they’d taken enough shots to commemorate all sorts of things I didn’t care about. That’s how they valued me the most, I think. A prop, a figurine, mannequin to pose for their insatiable pursuit of smiling family photos.

No matter what you think of me as a person, I hope you can understand why I shy from cameras now, why I value giving myself a break, and why I recoil from anything that feels like an attempt to twist my arm and shame me into affective contortions.

I cannot feel welcome in any community space that will not accommodate me in this way — where everything needs to be enthusiasm and sunshine and grinning wide with open arms. Which is, in fact, something people sometimes (seem to?) hope for, without seeming to know or perhaps care about how that would push out those of us who either can’t or won’t discipline ourselves into some kind of obligatory eternal smiling. I do not want to walk on eggshells like that. I do not want to be forced to follow an invisible script and worry that my performance will be found wanting. Because while I don’t think it’s always… a bad thing, really, to bend over backwards — not categorically, not for those who choose it — the point of this post is more to account for the stiffness that comes from soreness that comes from overuse, overwork, overextension and why, sometimes, I permit myself not to expend the energy. When I do choose to, I want it to be my choice, and I’m the most reluctant when it feels like people are trying to pressure me into it or back me into a corner.

This is just to say, while I do hold myself to certain moral standards, I don’t aim to be just anyone’s vending machine for emotional labor, and I resent being pushed into affective contortions.

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